Wednesday, August 10, 2016


In what is astonishingly only the third time an Emperor of Japan has directly addressed the Japanese people in the age of electronic media, Akihito spoke to the public of the repercussions of his steadily declining health and how this is making it increasingly difficult for him to effectively carry out his ceremonial duties as head of state. Left unspoken but heavily implied – a manner of communication that traditional Japanese are known to be masters of – is his desire for being allowed to abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne in favor of his heir.

Out in the streets of Tokyo, pedestrians stopped in their tracks, eyes focused on nearby large LCD outdoor screens as the 82-year old Emperor’s pre-recorded message was aired Monday August 8. The gist of his speech according to CNN was that despite “being in good health” at present, he is also well aware of the gradual weakening of his physical condition and its effect on the performance of his duty as a unifying force for the country.

This announcement did not come as a shock. The Japanese public has been well aware of his issues with cancer and heart ailments. The hidden message about wanting to retire was not lost either, and recent opinion polls have it that the people would support the Emperor if he wished to step down and let his son, 56-year old Crown Prince Naruhito ascend the throne.

The problem was that there are no laws about how to go about such an abdication and transfer of power as head of state. The post-World War II Japanese constitution reduced the Emperor’s role to that of a complete figurehead and living symbol of the people, and no legislation was given on how an Emperor might want to step down. Technically this means that the Japanese Emperor “reigns” as head of state until death, as Akihito’s father Hirohito, the Showa Emperor, did when he died in 1989 and was only then succeeded by his son.

As of this year Akihito has sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne for 28 years after ascending at age 55. His oblique speech was necessary due to the figurehead status of being Emperor preventing him from making any political statement, which includes plainly stating his desire to abdicate. To take action on the Emperor’s hint would mean making amendments to the Imperial Household Law to make possible, a move that could take years more according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Akihito is the 125 th Emperor of Japan, of a lineage maintained by tradition as having ben unbroken for 14 centuries. As stated, his message was the third time an Emperor addressed Japan directly. The first was Hirohito’s radio announcement of Japan’s surrender in 1945, and the second was Akihito’s address of encouragement after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

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